Controversy has surrounded music since at least the mid-1900s. Spawning controversy seems to be one of the main ways for an artist to gain appeal. When an album comes into question, it is usually done so by parents. These parents are usually outraged by some aspect of the artist or song, and that makes listening to the album rebellious. And who are more rebellious than those parents’ children? Teenagers who are told that Elvis Presley was too “sexy” in his hip gyrations, or that his lyrics were a bit too provocative, were driven to listen to him. The same type of attention-grabbing tactics are being done today among music’s biggest stars, as these musicians attempt to draw attention to their craft and gain the appeal of millions.
The article “Music and Controversy: The Cycle Continues,” by University of Minnesota student Jill Shirley in 2004, brought this idea to surface in my mind. I had always noticed that musicians were behaving in strange ways, dressing in a provocative manner or singing about something shocking, but her article brought these ideas to light for me. She gives specific examples of artist behavior and says they act in this way so they can sell more records.
For example, Janet Jackson’s performance at the Super Bowl was quite shocking when Justin Timberlake pulled at a section of her shirt to expose one of her nipples. It’s a doubtful coincidence that two weeks later she released an album, which sold millions of copies. It appears the publicity stunt worked.
Christina Aguilera pulled one of her own stunts when she released the video “Dirty.” In the video, Aguilera is barely covering her parts that aren’t allowed to be shown on cable television. She was also a fighter and was clearly making a statement that she was departing from her innocent, good girl image. This was during a time in the late 1990s that she was up against pop superstar Brittany Spears. It was an obvious move to take attention away from Spears, as the two appealed to the same demographic of listeners. This type of competition among musicians has caused them to push the envelope on what is acceptable, as each artist attempts to one-up the other, just as a car company would try to one-up the other for the best SUV on the market.
But unlike SUV’s, musicians have the ability to influence society. The clothes – or lack thereof – lyrics and behaviors transform a society. But the trend hasn’t gone directly from Elvis’s hip gyrations to flashing the camera when millions of viewers are watching. It has progressed. In the 1970s, Kiss released their first album. Many adults thought the music came from Satan himself, and claimed it had hidden messages when played on a record player backwards. This could be a reason why the band gained so much fame. As parents criticized the music, their children lined up at record stores – the 1970’s version of iTunes. This appeals more to the male population, but a decade later, females would have a rebel of their own: Madonna pushed the limits of sexuality, as women were encouraged to “express” themselves. In my opinion, this marks the beginning of the sex revolution among music stars. Never before had sexuality in media been so explicit.
While many men likely supported the sex movement, it was more of the lyrics and styles of other musicians that got their attention. Kiss made way in the 1980s-90s to rap music and heavy metal. These forms of music were shocking and they pushed the limits in everything they did. Rap was often considered to be an expression of the society in which the rappers grew up, and it gave a voice to those who were impoverished. Lyrics became more and more shocking until perhaps the most controversial of them all, Eminem, took the microphone in the late 1990s. He was accused of being gay-hating and women-hating, and his lyrics certainly expressed that. Exploiting women became commonplace throughout his music and it is difficult to find anything that can be put into an essay. Let’s just say that in one song, he describes Christina Aguilera giving him oral sex. He also talks about murdering his own mother.
Whether this is the true Eminem or just an act put on to appeal to the millions of people who enjoy his angry outbreaks, and who perhaps relate to them, can only be known by speaking to Eminem himself. However, he does mention in a song that he raps this way because it’s “giving you what you want, so I can keep selling this…” It’s interesting that at the 2001 Grammy awards Eminem hugs Elton John, a known homosexual. This could be confirmation that Eminem is a schizophrenic – one minute he raps about hating gays and the next he is hugging them – or it means that he will do whatever it takes to get people’s attention. Because once he has their attention, they might buy his record.
I don’t blame the artists for pursuing this line of marketing themselves. I think they are largely influenced by their respective record labels. But the sexuality that is displayed by many of the female artists has an impact on women. And I don’t consider myself to be a feminist, but many girls are subject to severe depression because they don’t fit into the category of what is considered sexy. And with these artists putting so much emphasis on being sexy, girls might feel insecure if they don’t meet the high standards of beauty.
Similarly, damage is done on society by rappers such as Eminem, who promote hate and violence. It would be impossible to draw a clear connection between Eminem and the actions or behaviors of those who are influenced by him to behave a certain way, but I think it’s only rational to assume that the hateful language has its effects on people, many of whom are easily influenced teenagers. Either these artists don’t care about that result or they don’t consider it.
Furthermore, while I don’t necessarily blame the artists for these potentially harmful publicity stunts, I don’t respect them for it. Jackson’s nipple exposure, if done only to sell records, is sacrificing her dignity for money, of which she probably already has lots. However, she may perceive nipples as something that should be freed from the confines of clothing. If that is the case, then her dignity isn’t shattered.
Despite why the artist exposes her nipple or raps about hate, the issue begs the question: should music be censored? As Andre Hall of Lehigh University points out in “Music Censorship,” the medium is a powerful form of expression. This could be taken to mean that all the artists are doing is reflecting the society in which they live. I don’t blame the artists any more than I blame human nature. After all, people are very sexual beings and that is why acts such as Jackson’s nipple exposure appeals to them. There is unfortunately also a demographic of people who are very violent. And that is why Eminem appeals to them. It isn’t necessarily that musicians are affecting people… musicians are reflecting people. They are revealing to us our true nature, or at least that of demographics large enough to buy their albums – fortunately we aren’t all violent sex addicts.
The controversial behavior of musicians started out small, with a few hip gyrations, to what it is today, where music stars are flashing camera’s on cable television. The move is gradual, but as long as artists continue to push the envelope of what is acceptable, the range will get much wider, until a music star 100 years from now is not just letting her nipple out for a breather, but to where she will actually be having sex on stage at a Super Bowl halftime show. Now that would sell a few albums.
Hall, Andre. (2009). Music Censorship. Lehigh University.
Shirley, J. (2004). Music and Controversy. University of Minnesota.